Budget cuts may lead to longer school days in HISD
Tighter budgets could cost Houston students some extra sleep next year.
To save an estimated $1.2 million, HISD officials are considering standardizing the times that schools start and end, prompting protests from parents worried about teenagers nodding off in class or behind the wheel.
For high school students, the first bell would ring at 7:45 a.m. — at least half an hour earlier than most campuses start now. Middle schools would start the latest, at 8:45 a.m., and elementary schools would begin at 7:30 a.m. or 8:30 a.m.
The Houston Independent School District would be following several neighbors that stagger schedules to cut busing costs and have opted to start high schools earliest. In Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the area's second-largest district behind HISD, high schools start at 7:25 a.m.
HISD Superintendent Terry Grier acknowledges the move would be unpopular with many but says the coinciding earlier release time would help students with after-school jobs and keep athletes from practicing in the dark during the spring time change. The school board could vote on the proposal as early as next Thursday.
"This is one of those rock-and-a-hard-place decisions," said Aaron Spence, HISD's chief of high schools.
The decision is clear for Marta Fiorotto, a mother of an HISD teenager and a pediatric researcher at Baylor College of Medicine. Fiorotto, who supports later start times, says studies show that teenagers are wired to be late-to-bed and late-to-rise. Without enough shut-eye, she says, teens can feel in a permanent state of jet lag - potentially leading to poor academic performance and car accidents for those who drive to school.
She has seen the biological effects on her daughter. The bus near her house arrives around 7 a.m. to take her to Carnegie Vanguard High School, where classes begin at 8:30. HISD's proposal would push the start time up by 45 minutes.
"It's always a huge fight in the morning," Fiorotto said. "And I'm a scientist. I feel bad because I'm making her do something that her body doesn't want her to do."
A Mayo Clinic guide, "Teen sleep: Why is your teen so tired?" explains that during puberty a teenager's internal clock changes, with drowsiness kicking in later, around 11 p.m. And teens need about nine hours of sleep for ideal alertness.
HISD's high schools now begin at various times, ranging from 7:40 a.m. at Bellaire to 8:40 at Reagan.
Spence notes that most would see the school day lengthened, by five minutes to half an hour, which could improve instruction.
Of course, not all teens begrudge early mornings.
Brianna Amaya, a 15-year-old freshman at the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice in HISD, said she would prefer to start class earlier so she could have more time in the afternoons to fit in workouts. High schools would release at 3:15 under the plan.
"I'm tired of getting out of school at 3:50," Amaya said. "My best friend is in Katy. She gets out at 2:30. She said she loves it."
But junior Carolina Pena, 17, predicts she'll struggle to stay awake if the schedule shifts. She wakes up at 6:40 a.m. now to catch the bus to the High School for Law Enforcement an hour later.
"Everybody would just be sleepier," she said, adding that she already dozes off in her first-period class.
HISD's chief operating officer, Leo Bobadilla, said school principals, after talking with parents, can decide to opt out of the standard schedule but the busing cost would come out of the campus budget.
Board member Mike Lunceford questioned whether principals could absorb the expense when the district has cut their per-student funding by $275 in anticipation of a severe state funding shortfall.
"We want to empower the schools to decide what happens there, but if we're not going to fund them, they can't make the decisions they want," Lunceford said at a board meeting last month.
Deer Park ISD made the opposite change a few years ago to start its high schools later, at 8:45 a.m. Spokesman Matt Lucas said the move allows students who need extra course credits to take a class before the standard start.
"Of course, there was some resistance from parents and staff," Lucas said, "but once we got through the first year, a lot of the resistance changed to support."
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